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Strategy in the Aftermath: How Local Governments Can Protect Citizens and Emergency Responders from Toxins After Natural Disasters

Climate change is a growing threat for national and local governments alike.

Entire communities can be devastated by extreme weather events, including hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires, each of which are exacerbated by climate change. While natural disasters themselves are a main concern for government agencies, the public may still be at risk long after a storm has passed. Debris and toxic materials can linger in the aftermath, posing potential health hazards for communities as they attempt to rebuild.

For government agencies, this means placing more focus on preparedness and response and addressing the safety of residents and staff during the recovery phase. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, for example, the death toll continued rising even after the storm had passed. To prevent additional injuries, emergency officials must be aware of any hazards that exist in the wake of these disasters and inform the public accordingly.

In previous decades, homes, workplaces, and businesses were not constructed to the same public health standards currently in place today. More recently, several popular materials and additives once used during the construction process have been classified as hazardous and fallen out of favor, including asbestos and lead.  Unfortunately, unless the structure was renovated and these hazards were specifically removed, it’s likely they’re still present in some form in older buildings. Lead and asbestos were both used in a multitude of construction materials, and there is a significant cause for concern if anyone is accidentally exposed to these toxins. Lead damages many bodily systems and asbestos fibers are linked to cancerous tumors in the lining around organs. Products such as vinyl flooring, building insulation, roof tiles, and even adhesives may contain variable amounts of asbestos, while lead can be found in paint chips, dust, and metal pipes.

While lead and asbestos-containing materials can remain safely intact when left alone, a natural disaster will likely disrupt these toxins and increase opportunities for exposure. It may be difficult for the untrained eye to identify potentially toxic materials, even under normal circumstances. For professionals or individuals who may be aware of hazards in older homes, any dangerous materials are likely to be fragmented and unrecognizable after a natural disaster has passed through. In either case the public may unknowingly inhale microscopic lead or asbestos particles, possibly resulting in severe health repercussions decades later.

The issue of toxin exposure has been exemplified in recent years by several natural disasters in the United States. Concerns were raised after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 about potential asbestos exposure as affected communities were dealing with debris and rebuilding. Following California’s wildfires last year, multiple state departments cautioned residents about toxins that could be found in the ash and debris. Without announcements and awareness from local governments and the media, the public could have been put at greater risk while performing cleanup efforts.

The prevalence of natural disasters makes it necessary for government agencies to be prepared by having all the appropriate plans and systems in place. This includes emergency communications, both during and after a natural disaster. The CodeRED from OnSolve platform can help communities get back on their feet by providing an efficient means of communication between the government, the media, and the public.

This blog was written in conjunction with Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center with the goal to create additional awareness and education on the risks of asbestos exposure.